January 29, 2012

Blog the Second: Our Daily Salad

Postscript to Steak & Potatoes:   
the Salad, the Fruit, & sweet Coffee

I wrote my first blog never so much as having seen one before, and did I ever think it would take that long a post to describe the simplest sort of meal I cook for myself of a weekday evening?  It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words; turns out steak & potatoes are worth 2,996.

And all those words didn’t really include the salad.  I have much to say to you about the salad, Gentle Reader, even if I fear you may not be ready to hear as much as I have to say.  One explains complicated things through simpler things, but the only way to explain the simplest things is by complicating them.

Now the salad is the simplest thing my people eat, and they eat one every single day, after the main dish of the main meal, by itself, as a matter of course [all puns intended].  Why, you ask?  Well, I could tell you that it is good for digestion, or, that it cleanses the palate, but I would be enabling your prejudices in thus assigning it a merely ancillary function.  My people eat salad everyday because they like it.  Are you smirking at the simplicity of that reply?  Do you want a metaphysical argument for why salad is both good in itself and good for us, a proof that Deus sive natura intends it for human beings in both respects, and daily?  But then we might never get around to making our daily salad.

Okay, okay, so maybe I’m being a tad cheeky with you.  Let me try to do better.  For my people, the sine qua non of every meal, ordinary or festal, is a salad of fresh greens, fresh fruit, and strong sweetened coffee.  The reviving of our senses with salad and fruit after the principal gets us ready for dessert.  Do not let anyone pass off your salad as your vegetable-side to your meat.  My mother has tried this now and again since she moved to Jersey, and my Sicilian cousins claim it is the norm in [New] Italy with roasted meat, but no such thing was ever imagined in Brooklyn, let alone attempted. Likewise, fruit is not dessert.  When you deserve dessert, don’t let anyone pass off fresh fruit as your dessert.  Dessert is a product of art, not nature, artfully sweetened with sugar or honey or some other superfluously delectifying additive, served after fresh fruit and before or with coffee.

I always feel annoyed when one of my gentile guests brings a dessert made with fruit, such as a pie, and looks dismayed when I precede it with a course of fresh fruit, as though there were redundancy or competition in that.  (The only more annoying thing is when I ask for a dessert, and they bring fruit salad.)  What has fresh fruit to do with cooked fruit?  They are as far different as virgin and mother.  The excellences of chastity are not those of fecundity.

Sweet espresso sounds the final cadence for the appetite.  Unsweetened coffee is a gentile barbarism (like dry champagne, casks of which, destined for export to the Brits, the French branded brut as fit for a beast).  I suspect this American form of self-abnegation to be of Calvinist origin, since I always detect a note of moralism when one of my guests says ‘No’ to sugar for their coffee, as though they really want to say ‘No, of course not’.   I have an old College buddy who told me [eyeing me adding sugar] that in his [Presbyterian] home growing up, adding sugar to coffee was looked upon as childish, a thing to be outgrown.  [These same people thought it laughable that I mush my hard ice cream into soft serve.  To this day I don’t get what’s ridiculous about that.  It tastes a lot better that way, you know, especially if you spike it with some cognac or bourbon]

I know of no Italian who takes his espresso without sugar, and if ever I met one, I’d mock him as Americanizato.  I’ll grant, however, that there are two Italian aesthetics.  On one hand, some use sugar in coffee as one does salt in cooking, i.e., to bring out the flavor of the coffee.  This approach requires great discretion, because Italians drink very small quantities of strong espresso, and so it’s easy to overdo it.  On the other hand, there are those who overdo it on purpose, i.e., who want the coffee to taste sweet, like a dessert. 

This may be why Italians don’t have desserts at daily meals, but mostly only on feast days, whereas Americans need to set off their bitter brew with fatty sweets on a daily basis, no doubt to get the stuff down.  What seems childish to my people is the way an American will decline salad and fruit after the main dish, protesting that they are stuffed, but then a half hour later reach for a big chunk of pie and refills of coffee.  They seem to have a hollow leg for that.

On feast days, one works cheese and nuts in between salad and fruit, and sweets in between fruit and coffee, in exuberant imitation of nature’s overflowing bounty.  But these additions are like the embellishments of your party dress.  Your daily salad and fruit are like underwear – you can omit them, but it’s not respectable, even if no one else knows about it.  

I had one gentile dinner guest who told me that down south when he was growing up, a salad of raw greens (which is what my people mean by salad) was not only not served, it was unheard of.  That would strike my people as passing strange.  Is not man the omnivorous animal?  Are not the green things that Deus sive natura makes spring from the earth self‑evidently edible?  Does not reflection teach the rational animal to bring such edibles to their perfection with olive oil, vinegar, and salt?

But the problem of our own day is not the gentiles who haven’t learned to eat salad, but the ones who have, who in an excess of zeal so characteristic of the convert-turned-reformer love to deride the iceberg lettuce of their carnivorous forbears; seek to adorn salad with barbarous baubles of fruit, nuts, cheese, and flowers; even crown it with grilled protein to exalt it into a main course, as if to make a body out of a limb. 

Gentle Reader, it belongs to God alone to create the body of a woman from the rib of a man.  Mimicking creative power will yield us only monsters of nature.  Human cookery is midwifery, its job to abet what nature wants to bring forth.  A salad wants to be simple; a salad wants to be humble; a salad wants to be pure -- adding apples, grapes, or raisins confounds kinds, hence nature, therefore reason.  No, the salad is to the meal as the amusing postscript to the finished letter, the punctuation to the sentence that has said most of what it had to say, the coda of the retiring melody, or else the sprightly interlude at a feast intent on multiplying pleasures.

The essential matter of a salad is the greens that such herbivores as bunnies and bugs eat.  Other vegetation may be added for variety and color, such as radishes or cucumbers, but strictly speaking, there can be no such thing as a radish or cucumber salad.  I’ll grant that other things may by analogy be called “salads”, because they are dressed as salads are, and they may even substitute for salads on rare occasions, by way of exceptions that only confirm the rule, but none of this detracts from the primacy within the species, as its first and finest specimen, of the salad of greens.

The greens must be clean and crisp, and like all grass, they get that way only from the WET and the COLD.  Yes, you must wash your greens, even the stuff in the bags that has been “triple-washed”.  Something about blogging makes one confess one’s sins, so I will confess to you that I too have made salads straight from the bag—but, in more sane and honest moments of reflection, I admit to myself that I was lying to myself when I said it would be fine.  Is not the lie we tell ourselves far worse than the lie we tell another?  Then let us wash our greens, Gentle Reader hypocrite lecteur, – mon semblable, mon frère!

If greens come fresh from my father's garden, my mother soaks them in basins of water, to let all grit drift to the bottom; then she scoops them out of the bath to transfer them to a colander.  My people are so offended by the feel of grit on tooth or tongue, that they rinse the greens three times in three changes of water.  That’s a lot of trouble, I know, but I also know that the mix of greens my mother collects from sundry heads of lettuce is incommensurably superior to the stuff in the bag.  There being only so many hours in my day, I use the stuff in the bag, but I know to be sad about it.  Much "spring mix" has no character.  I like the arugula from Attitude and the Sorrento Mix from Trader Joe’sIn a pinch, I'll buy the 1/2-&-1/2 Spinach-Spring mixes, which aren't half-bad.

You must not only wash or soak your greens (which, being grass, will revive even after wilting), but you must spin them dry, seal them in a plastic bag, and chill them in the frig, in advance.  (I also put a paper towel in the sealed bag to absorb excess moisture, and replace the towel as necessary.)  The good news is that, once crisped, such sealed greens will be ready for use for days to come. 

Now, oil.  As was the sun to the greens’ generation, so is oil to their consummation.  Oil is of course olive oil, but olive oil is not olive oil.  There is regular olive oil and extra virgin, and both are needed in your kitchen, because they perform different functions – if the difference between them be not that between species and species, then it is like that between male and female – indispensable to the species, even if  accidental to the nature.  

Extra virgin olive oil is rich, viscous, and assertive; regular olive oil is mild, genial, and serviceable.  Extra virgin, as the rarer, the stronger, and the more expensive, is used by my people selectively, and most often raw, because it can overwhelm the flavor of many things.  The aim of our cooking is to bring out the specific deliciousness of what is being cooked, not cover it with the deliciousness of something else.  Making something taste like extra virgin olive oil is not making it delicious, except incidentally.  It’s a culinary cop-out.   Regular olive oil is the common oil for most of our cooking because it’s readier to play second fiddle to the food.  (In fact, in the early days in Brooklyn, my mother used only peanut oil, because olive oil was too expensive; eventually, my father introduced regular olive oil into the house, and finally extra virgin.  My mother claims to this day that she prefers peanut oil.)

I will sometimes add regular olive oil to extra virgin to tame its flavor, or contrariwise, extra virgin to regular olive oil to deepen its flavor (and butter to temper extra virgin when cooking with it, but that’s another blog).  Thinking about it, I think I employ extra virgin more like a flavoring agent, and regular olive oil more like a cooking agent.  Since both olive oils have a low smoking point, especially the extra virgin, I also keep peanut oil on hand for high-heat deep-frying.   

If making a salad with mild flavored lettuce, such as iceberg, I use regular olive oil and no extra virgin; for stronger flavors, like that of arugula, I use half and half.  The choice of oil dovetails with the choice of vinegar.  I keep four on hand, which will no doubt make both you and my mother laugh:  “He doesn’t cook; he plays house.”  But the difference between you and my mother, Gentle Reader, is that I can no doubt ferret out four vinegars at her house, distributed throughout her kitchen on no rational plan, and lay them out before her to arrest her laughter – provoking her to call me some barely pronounceable and translatable name from her dialect, Giovanni ri la pagliatella! ("Johnny Lambkin's-fatty-bowels!"?]  But her name-calling only vindicates me of your laughter.

The mother of all vinegars is red wine-vinegar.  However, many wine vinegars are not made from wine, so my father, ever the innovator, got the idea of doctoring store-bought wine-vinegar, pre-mixing a bottleful in the ratio of 1 part wine to 2 or 3 of vinegar, and it’s a very good idea. When I do find real wine vinegar, such as the Mengazzoli Aceto di Vino I buy from Pastosa in Brooklyn, then I don’t always doctor it.  I also buy white wine-vinegar from the same maker, for a lighter and brighter taste at times, and in lieu of the white vinegar my parents still use for certain dressings, such as for fish, for example. 

Then there’s dark Balsamic vinegar, which I sometimes use on its own, and sometimes go half and half with red wine‑vinegar.  I also like Trader Giotto’s White Balsamic, which can add a surprising sweetness, when that is wanted.  These two pairs, red & white wine-vinegars and dark & white Balsamic, stand at the ready on my counter in matching glass dispenser bottles—flanking dispenser bottles of olive oil, extra-virgin and regular—for use in sundry dressings, chief among these being the dressing of my daily salad.

Now, the last but decisive element of the salad of greens will decide your educability, Gentle Reader.  If you will not obey me in this, you will never learn anything from this blog.  Salad must be salted.  In fact, it must almost be salty.  Do you doubt me?  Why, the very name testifies for me and against you:  ‘salad’ comes from the Latin word for ‘salted’.  One of the most ancient recipes that comes down to us from the Romans, the first apostles of all European cuisine, calls for the greens to be “well salted”.

I always have two salts in the house, coarse kosher and fine table salt.  Morton’s Kosher is my go-to salt for most cooking—although I contemn their table salt and anyone who continues to use it once I have denounced it to them, because of its salt-suppressing dextrose.  In Brooklyn in the old days, the table salt of choice was Red Cross, but that not being available in the Mid-Atlantic, I use Hain’s Sea Salt, which has the astonishing quality of being almost too salty (even though it contains iodide and dextrose!?!).  I have to concentrate when pouring it like a salt-god from above in order not to overdo it.  But if you’re going to have a problem with your salt, this is the problem you want to have, not not-salty salt. 

On this score, you must keep in mind that coarse kosher salt, being twice as voluminous as table salt, is also half as concentrated, so that you need twice as much coarse kosher as fine table salt for any recipe, and, conversely, half as much fine as coarse.  So when raining down salt from above, rain down the coarse in generous showers, but the fine in gentle drizzles, always keeping your eye on the salt.

When friends give me fancy gourmet salts hand-harvested from the Mediterranean and marketed in containers as tiny as they are pricey, I forget, lose, or give them away.  I already have more expensive tastes than I can afford, so I’m glad I don’t appreciate the difference.  The gourmet prices on that stuff I consider a species of white-collar crime.  And who can be bothered with those ridiculously tiny containers of salt?

Likewise ridiculous and criminal are those pricey miniature bottles of oil olive that your gourmet markets have for sale.  If you use that little olive oil when you cook, why bother cooking at all?  I buy salt in 3‑pound boxes and olive oil in 3-litre cans, and I would go for a good old‑fashioned gallon of EDDA Extra Virgin from Lucca, if I could find it.  My go-to extra-virgin these days is Madre Sicilia.  Many regular olive oils are good – right now I have Botticelli in my cabinet that my father got dirt‑cheap on sale at his Hightstown Shop Rite, which has the largest selection of regular olive oils I know.  Do not buy regular olive oil from those groceries that price it at the same rate as extra virgin – that is not only criminal, it is also despicable. 

Speaking of despicable, those little gourmet bottles of flavored or seasoned olive oil are abominations.  Olive oil is not an embalming fluid.  You don’t want weeds floating in it, or a sediment of spices, or worst of all, festering pungents, like cloves of garlic.  Nasty.  Purge it from your midst.

So, these three, oil olive, vinegar, salt, are the natural complements of greens for a human being.  However, their combination is no easy matter;  to hit the right proportion among them is no easy thing.  Getting this proportion right, or not, means culinary triumph, or culinary defeat, each and every day, day after day. 

The great Italian cookbook authoress from whom I have learned everything I know about Northern Italian food, Marcella Hazan (don’t worry, it's her married named; she’s Bolognese; just say, Marcella) says that it takes four people to make an Italian salad:  a generous person to add the oil; a stingy person to add the vinegar; a judicious person to add the salt; and a patient person to toss it. 

Well, Gentle Reader, I have no difficulty being generous with the oil and judicious with the salt, and if I concentrate, I can be stingy with the vinegar, but for the life of me, I have no patience for tossing.  It’s a defect of my character, I own it.  I do not mean that I am generally impatient—not so—but I have no patience for tossing my daily salad.  I know not why; it’s matter for therapy.  But that too is a luxury I cannot afford, so I have come up with what I called “layered” dressing.

I lay out my greens (and any accoutrements, such as radishes or cucumbers) in a single layer on a platter (gone is the salad bowl).  Then from on high, I generously drizzle regular olive oil evenly all over.  Next, with my fingers I sprinkle coarse kosher salt evenly all over, followed by uneven grindings of black pepper, and finally an arbitrary pinch of oregano.  Then I sprinkle vinegar cautiously but evenly all over—for the tastiest greens, like arugula, only dark Balsamic; for those of medium mettle, like spring mix, a mix of Balsamic and red-wine vinegar; for the most delicate, like iceberg, a mix of red wine vinegar and squirts of lemon juice (which softens the vinegar, for mysterious chemical reasons involving hookings-up of nitrates).  Then I turn the plate a quarter-turn—this is critical—and generously drizzle extra virgin olive oil from on high, crisscrossing the earlier drizzling of regular olive oil. 

Now, if it’s just me, and I’m not having some princess over for dinner who will be shocked upright by a pocket of vinegar and wave her hand frantically before her pursed and puckered lips in a mock-effort to hide it, then I eat my salad untossed and put up with those little pockets as one does little love-taps.  Otherwise, I toss it, and to keep myself from getting insufferably bored, I recite to myself Marcella’s little saying, “It takes four people to make an Italian salad, a generous ….”

I used to eat bread with my salad, but I’ve repented of that—fornicating with the peoples of the land, learning their abominations—so I never eat bread with my salad anymore, because it blunts the refreshment of it, but, I do always save a bit of bread to sop up the dressing after I’ve finished eating the greens, such sopping being a pious practice of my people, for which they have the charming description, fare la scarpetta, which I’ll loosely translate, doing the soft shoe:   it is customary to glide your little bread-shoe in graceful figures-eight all around your plate, to collect all the dressing clinging to it, for, as my mother says, when we waste bread or spill oil, God cries.  Well, we wouldn’t want that, would we?  At dinner parties with the gentiles of the land of my exile, I use a fork to spear the bread when doing my soft shoe, but I always feel ashamed of myself for it, and my mother would surely laugh at me if she saw it, and she’d be right to.